Sam Weaver and Suzanne Jones: Why we still support the muniPublished on: Saturday, September 23, 2017
We are going to vote “Yes” on city measures 2L, 2O, and 2P (2L-O-P) this election. We hope you will join us.
Since voters approved the exploration of a city-run electric utility (muni) in 2011, Boulder has taken concrete steps towards establishing our own muni, like ones that 29 other Colorado cities operate. A clean-energy muni will enable Boulder to reach its goals of 100 percent renewable electricity, 80 percent carbon emissions reduction, and improved democratic input into local grid management, clean power generation, and the potential for public broadband internet service. The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) recently provided a viable process to separate Boulder’s grid system from Xcel’s. If Boulder voters pass 2L-O-P, we will soon have a chance to consider the full costs and benefits of running our own electricity system, and a guaranteed future vote on that package with complete information.
The choice regarding separation from Xcel is a generational decision on par with previous landmark Boulder initiatives such as setting growth boundaries, creating our open space system, establishing the Pearl Street Mall, and limiting building heights. As we contemplate taking this significant step to enable local decision-making about our energy, we must consider the impact of this choice for generations into the future, not just over the next few years. Because of the way electricity is regulated in Colorado, being a part of the Xcel system greatly limits what choices are available to city residents. With a muni, Boulder residents and businesses would have much more freedom to pioneer creative solutions to clean energy delivery within the city.
Existing limits to the deployment of customer-sited solar and storage could be removed, and local businesses could sell excess energy from their solar system to their neighbors. Decision-making about how to operate our grid would become much more transparent and accessible. Perverse incentives that cause private utilities to oppose widespread behind-the-meter energy generation and storage would disappear.
Another benefit to passing 2L-O-P is that munis in Colorado generally have high service reliability. Fort Collins’ city-run electric utility has five times higher reliability than Xcel, and with Longmont’s public utility, customers are without power half the time of an average Boulder customer. These cities are more able to weather the wet spring storms that bring down tree limbs onto power lines. When repairs are needed due to a major event, crews from all over converge to help restore power based on mutual aid agreements between power suppliers, both public and private. Like these other cities’ service, a Boulder muni would likely be more reliable than Xcel over time. It is also likely to be cheaper in the long run, as munis on average charge rates 15 percent less than investor-owned utilities.
So far, we have described three major reasons for continuing our muni exploration: democratization, decentralization, and greater reliability. But the greatest reason for a muni is decarbonization. Xcel recently announced that one of its possible paths, subject to PUC direction, is a move to more wind energy backed by natural gas. This may get them to 55 percent renewable electricity by 2026. While that is laudable (if it happens), it is not enough; 100 percent is our goal. As extreme weather events such as hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria increase in number and impact, causing extreme misery and death, scientists give us a clear mandate: 80 percent carbon reduction by 2050. Climate change is an existential threat whose heaviest blows will fall on future generations. Many believe that Boulder has helped move Xcel’s thinking with our firm commitment to 100 percent renewables. Without the muni effort, we would not have had nearly the attention we have received from Xcel. Whatever happens, keeping the pressure on Xcel for rapid change is critical in this moment. Every year, over $30 million in pre-tax profits leave Boulder to head to Xcel’s Minneapolis headquarters. In contrast, the entire process of navigating roadblocks to municipalization, including the system engineering and design that will be funded with passage of 2L-O-P, will total $32 million — about a single years’ profit paid from Boulderites to Xcel.
Systemic change is hard. Moving ahead with the muni will allow Boulder to unleash the power of market innovation to build an electrical grid that is more resilient, clean, and open than what we currently have or will likely ever see from Xcel. This will be good for future generations of Boulderites, who have to prepare for the coming storms, as well as generate power in a manner that does not make the fires and floods worse.
This Letter to the Editor appeared in the Daily Camera.